When Diabetic Neuropathy Made Him Miserable, A Spinal Cord Stimulator Got Him Back on His Feet

Implantable Device Now Available to Treat Discomfort, Numbness, Tingling, and Burning in the Feet

By Morgan deBlecourt
July 27, 2022
Kerry May walks with two large, black dogs on leashes.

Kerry May walks with his Newfoundlands, Sirius and Mavis, in Raleigh, NC.

For Army veteran Kerry May, staying active has always been an important part of managing his diabetes. But worsening diabetic neuropathy -- nerve damage caused by high blood sugar levels -- made it incredibly painful for him to walk, let alone exercise. As part of a clinical trial at Duke, May, then 71, underwent a minimally invasive procedure to try a spinal cord stimulator. He was amazed by the results. “I expected pain relief. I did not expect as much pain relief as I got. And having done all the research, I knew it was going to last.” Now more than three years later, he’s walking miles a day, playing golf as often as possible, and encouraging others to consider spinal cord stimulation. 

What Is Spinal Cord Stimulation?

A spinal cord stimulator is like a pacemaker for diabetic neuropathy pain. It consists of two parts: a small pulse generator that is implanted under your skin, and two small wire leads that are placed near specific nerves along your spine. These work together to block nerve pain. The technology has been used for decades to treat back and leg pain. However, until recently, it had not been well studied for treating neuropathy of the feet caused by diabetes.

Diabetic neuropathy has long been treated with a variety of drugs, but the use of these medications is waning due to side effects, risk of dependency, and lackluster results, leaving millions of people with few treatment alternatives.

Raleigh resident Kerry May was running out of options to treat his diabetic neuropathy foot pain when he was given the opportunity to participate in a clinical trial studying the effectiveness of spinal cord stimulation. He leaped at the chance. He had endured pain in his feet for decades, and it was only getting worse. “I looked at it as an opportunity for some relief beyond what I was currently getting with medications,” he said.

Trial Period Offers Chance to Test Drive Spinal Cord Stimulator

May met with Duke neurosurgeon Nandan Lad, MD, and physician assistant Beth Parente, who explained the study called SENZA-PDN, which was the largest and longest study of its kind. Before placement of the final device, May completed a week-long trial period. This gives patients a chance to test out the device and see whether it will work for them.

After the test period, May was eager to move forward. Dr. Lad and his team implanted May’s spinal cord stimulator in January 2019. The short outpatient procedure required only a small incision and no general anesthesia, so May was able to return home the same day. It wasn’t long before he was back to being active.

“Almost instantaneously after the recovery, I was able to start exercising again. I could go for 20-mile walks. I could play golf,” he said. “I got my lifestyle back.”

Long-Term Relief and Extra Benefits

May can expect his spinal cord stimulator to last for a long time. After about 10 years, he may need a short, 15-minute procedure to replace the battery, which he charges wirelessly every morning. Compared with pain medications, the risks of side effects or complications associated with spinal cord stimulation are minimal. 

Thanks in part to the study May participated in, the FDA approved the use of spinal cord stimulation to treat diabetic neuropathy pain in July 2021. The study also showed that spinal cord stimulation helped restore foot sensation.1 “While we were primarily looking for improvement in pain and discomfort, many patients regained sensation in their feet for the first time in years, Mr. May being one of them,” Dr. Lad said. “And when patients can feel their feet, they're less likely to experience some of the other complications of diabetes like immobility and foot injuries, ulcers, and amputation.”

Want to Learn More?

If you have been diagnosed with or have symptoms of diabetic neuropathy -- pain, numbness, tingling, burning, or other discomfort in your feet and legs -- and medications haven’t given you adequate relief, talk to your doctor about spinal cord stimulation. According to Parente, you should seek care at a center like Duke, which offers a team approach to diabetic neuropathy care and spinal cord stimulation. “We have extensive experience, not only in the procedure, but also in the follow-up and troubleshooting, which is one of the things that makes Duke unique,” she said.

If you're ready to find out whether spinal cord stimulation could help you, call 1-833-DUKE-PDN (1-833-385-3736).